[Update 2/19/20: Unless something really dramatic happens, this is the last update I'll offer to this particular post. Google has responded via the @GoogleMyBiz Twitter account to questions about the effect of descriptions on ranking. Here's what they had to say:
So at this point, the official answer to "Will descriptions help with ranking?" is "It depends."
Also, as pointed out on Twitter by Brian Freiesleben and as I've just confirmed, Google still includes "Add description" among recommended actions in the GMB dashboard to "improve your local search ranking and help your customers with a complete profile."]
[Update 2/16/20: In a surprisingly quick reversal, Google has removed the entire section called "Describe your business(es)," in response to controversy about the ranking impact of descriptions and the possibility that the new guidelines would encourage keyword stuffing.
Though the local SEO community has spoken loud and clear about the questionable ranking benefit of descriptions, I'm still intrigued that Google saw fit to add this content to its guidelines in the first place. Perhaps the benefit of descriptions as a relevance signal has not been fully realized, but it's clear that Google wanted to highlight descriptions as yet another factor that helps to create a nuanced and complete picture of the business.
I see no reason not to continue to recommend that businesses provide well-crafted descriptions, though we should be cautious for now about ascribing any specific ranking benefits to them.
In updating this post, I've chosen simply to strike out the sections that are no longer relevant and add a few clarifying comments.]
[Update 2/13/20: Google has responded to complaints about the new language and to claims that business description does not affect ranking. The sentence about adding keywords has been removed. This post has been updated to reflect the change.]
It's a rare event when Google updates its guidelines for how to rank well in local search. This week, as first spotted by Stefan Somborac on Twitter, they did just that.
Google's doc "Improve your local ranking on Google" was just updated with language suggesting that keywords in the description matter! https://t.co/mJBhmDF0z8 1/2
The addition of the section "Describe your business(es)" to the guidelines increases the number of ranking factors called out by Google from 5 to 6. With such a small number of ranking factors specifically highlighted, it pays to pay very close attention to each one. So let's review.
As a result of the update, controversy erupted, on Twitter and elsewhere, among local SEOs who pointed out that the business description has no impact on ranking, and that telling businesses to add keywords to descriptions would inadvertently encourage spam. In response to the complaints, Google first removed the mention of keywords, then later removed the entire section, even taking "brief description" out of the list of examples under "Enter complete and accurate information" (now called "Enter complete data").
What are we to make of all this? Though the company's advice was interpreted as misleading, it's important to remember that Google is looking for relevance signals in several new places these days -- reviews, content on the business website, Posts, photos, and more. In that context, it would make sense that Google would ask businesses to provide descriptive text to further differentiate and specify their offerings.
Google may have mischaracterized the immediate ranking impact of descriptions, but in doing so they may also have tipped their hand, showing us that any opportunity to provide relevant, differentiating content should not be neglected as Google looks to additional sources of information in order to determine when your listings will appear.
It's also a good idea to pay close attention to the factors Google continues to highlight in its ranking documentation, so let's review.
(1) Enter complete and accurate information data. Google says in the help doc that "businesses with complete and accurate information are easier to match with the right searches." When Google talks about completeness, they don't just mean name, address, and phone number. They mean that you should fill out every field that is available for your primary category and relevant to your business. The way they put it is that you should provide "information like (but not limited to) your physical address, phone number, category, brief description, and attributes."
All of this information will potentially be used by Google to match your business with users who search for these terms. For example, if you own a restaurant, and you indicate in the Attributes section of your GMB listing (Google's word for amenities) that you offer wheelchair accessible seating, anyone searching for "restaurant with wheelchair accessible seating" will be more likely to find your listing.
(2) Describe your business(es). This is the new section. You may have noticed that Google already calls out "brief description" in the previous section. Perhaps they saw a need to explain the special purpose of business descriptions.
When it was first noticed by Somborac, the section contained this sentence: "Think about the words customers would type to find your business, and make sure that your listing actually includes those keywords within it." As a few local SEOs observed online, it sounded like Google was inviting keyword stuffing by telling business owners to include keywords they want to rank for in their business descriptions. (Keyword stuffing is the spammy practice of adding superfluous words to web content in order to rank better in search.) In response to this perception, Google has removed that sentence as of 2/13/20, though the rest of the new recommendation has been retained.
We know Google doesn't actually want you to stuff descriptions with irrelevant or repetitive keywords. Really, Google is highlighting the description paragraph as an opportunity to tell consumers what makes your business distinctive. Their example is telling: "For example, if someone who lives in Dublin, California is looking for a NY Pizza restaurant and you also own that business, it’d be easier for the customer to find your listing on Google if your description included, 'Harry's NY Pizza in Dublin, CA,' instead of only 'Harry’s Pizza in CA.'"
In other words, your business description should contain highly relevant keywords that don't easily fit into your business name or any other field, but will help ensure that consumers who enter very specific searches for what you offer will be likely to find you.
(2) Verify your location(s). Who knows why Google places this item third second in the list. Claiming, or verifying, your business listing so that you can manage and update your information is a prerequisite for every other tactic they recommend.
(3) Keep your hours accurate. In this section, Google simply says, "Entering and keeping your opening hours current (including special hours for holidays and special events) lets potential customers know when you’re available and gives them confidence that when they travel to your location, it will be open." I happen to think they are highlighting hours because they know how important hours are to consumers, and perhaps how easy it is to forget to update your hours when they change due to a holiday or some other factor.
In Brandify's recent Local Search Consumer Survey, we asked consumers to name the three most important data points in local listings. Hours of operation got the greatest number of votes, with 70% of respondents saying they were a critical piece of information -- followed by basic contact information and reviews.
(4) Manage and respond to reviews. It's very interesting that Google calls this out as a ranking factor. After all, few local SEOs believe that you'll rank better as a direct result of responding to reviews. What's known, though, is that content written by the reviewers themselves is showing up more and more in local results. For instance, if someone writes a review about your restaurant that says it has "great outdoor seating," you might show up in a search for "restaurants with great outdoor seating" with the relevant phrase from that review highlighted right in the search result.
Also, studies have shown that responding to reviews tends to encourage more people to write them, and slightly improves your average star rating. So although you can't control how people review your business, Google places a great deal of importance on reviews and wants you to pay close attention to them, too.
(5) Add photo(s). Whenever I discuss ranking factors with a client, I try to always point out that Google takes a lot of trouble to highlight photos as an important component in ranking. Other sources like Local Search Ranking Factors haven't traditionally placed a lot of emphasis on photos, but if Google wants your photo content, you'd probably best pay attention.
I think this is properly understood as a kind of aspirational recommendation -- we've seen a lot of evidence in recent months that Google is hungry for photo content and is highlighting photos in various ways in order to customize results for specific local searches. I expect photos will only grow in importance over time.
Sometimes local SEO can feel quite overwhelming, what with the constant changes in search algorithms and the challenges of keeping up with new features, emerging sites and apps, and consumers who expect immediate personal attention. So it's helpful to know that from Google's point of view, you can do well in local simply by ensuring you cover these six five key activities.